Unions poised for historic strike over France’s Covid-19 school rules

With Covid-19 cases skyrocketing among children in France, Prime Minister Jean Castex took to the airwaves Monday night to relax the school protocol, once again. Teachers across the country were already livid over the government’s pandemic response and have planned a massive strike for Thursday. The new instructions – the third set since children returned to school January 3 after the holidays – have not calmed the teachers’ ire. Au contraire.

Inundated by the Omicron wave even as Delta hangs on, France’s pandemic arithmetic is astounding. Nationwide, all ages combined, the country is averaging more than 280,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases daily, with more than 2.5 percent of the country testing positive last week alone.

In schools, infection rates are often worse. In the greater Paris area, where Omicron hit first and fastest, some 5 percent of primary- and middle-school children were confirmed to be infected last week; among 15- to 17-year-olds, the figure was over 6 percent. Meanwhile, millions of primary school pupils remain unvaccinated amid a ploddingly slow start to the campaign for 5- to 11-year-olds.

Healthcare and education personnel have clamoured for better protection against Covid-19 in schools, demanding high-quality face masks and carbon-dioxide detectors in every school to aid ventilation against a predominantly airborne virus. They’ve also asked to return to the protocol in place in the autumn, which set off circuit-breaking class closures from the first confirmed case.

But their demands have mostly fallen on deaf ears. Since cases began rapidly rising in December, the French government has baffled experts by relaxing the Covid-19 school protocol again and again.

Judging by the unusually broad response to calls for strike action on January 13, school personnel, too, have reached a breaking point: Unions both radical and moderate, representing a wide variety of school workers, including teachers, aides, school principals and school inspectors, in primary and secondary schools, in the public and private sectors, have banded together to down tools on Thursday.

One major parents’ federation, the FCPE, even called on parents to pull their children out of class to mark the day of protest. All told as of Tuesday evening, the Snuipp-FSU, the leading union of primary school personnel, is forecasting that 75 percent of primary school teachers will strike on Thursday and that half of those schools will be closed.

“We haven’t seen a gathering of unions so dense and united, of primary and secondary levels at once, but also among management, in a great many years. It’s completely exceptional. From that perspective, that day and that call (to strike) are clearly historic. Indisputably,” education historian Claude Lelièvre told Libération on Monday. “The guild is not generally unanimous,” the scholar explained. “(France’s) education community can however be unanimous if it feels abandoned, attacked or debased. That’s the case here.”

‘Simplification’

As pharmacies and laboratories sink under the weight of demand for some 1.5 million antigen and PCR tests a day, parents and children have literally been left out in the cold in long queues.

Since an earlier school protocol change in December, contact-case classmates are allowed to return to school virtually immediately with a negative screening result. But amid the struggle to get kids tested in due time, Castex on Monday announced three “simplification” measures in response.

First, parents no longer have to pick up their children immediately after a classmate tests positive; kids can stay at school until the end of the day.

In the wake of that announcement, some bristled at the new risk they see the relaxed rule introducing. “Thanks for allowing children who will be contact cases stay at school until the end of the day and eat with the kindergarten teachers’ aides (maskless during the meal with the children). We’re so reassured,” one teachers’ aide union tweeted Monday night, with pointed sarcasm.

Second, Castex announced, kids no longer require a PCR or antigen test to return to school after the initial in-class exposure, a self-test suffices. Risky, too, experts say, convenience aside, pointing out that Health Minister Olivier Véran himself just weeks ago underlined the lower accuracy of home tests. Observers also flagged the risk of losing a handle on the pandemic state of play in schools – “breaking the thermometre” in the evocative French parlance – by replacing PCR and antigen results registered in a national database with untraceable DIY tests.

People wait their turn for Covid-19 tests at a pharmacy in Nantes, France on January 8, 2022.
People wait their turn for Covid-19 tests at a pharmacy in Nantes, France on January 8, 2022. © Stephane Mahe, Reuters

Third, said Castex, parents no longer need to attest in writing – as they were told to last week – that their kids have been screened three times, on Days 0, 2 and 4; now, a single reassuring note from mom or dad suffices. (Judging by some harried social media reaction on Monday night, the government may have more confidence in parents’ goodwill than their fellow parents or kids’ teachers do.)

Unimpressed, a union of school principals for its part tweeted: “They’ve opened school doors wide to Omicron and royally couldn’t give a damn about teaching personnel”.

Meanwhile, with hours to go before a Monday midnight legal cut-off to join the picket line, the union that first launched the strike call retorted that Castex’s pronouncements would only spur more support for the protest movement.

“Not only does the current protocol not protect pupils, personnel or their families, but it also completely disorganises school. Despite repeated government affirmations to the contrary, it isn’t schools that are open but a form of child-minding service,” said the Snuipp-FSU union, which is demanding primary classes close at the first confirmed infection to ward against viral clusters.

Digging in

Critics have long slammed Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer for opposing proposals to mitigate viral spread in schools with the single-minded dogma of keeping them open. Exasperated school and healthcare professionals say they share a preference for keeping schools open, but want them safer for the children and adults who spend their days there.

Amid a health authority warning over the Christmas break that “at least” one-third of teachers could be off work due to Omicron by the end of January – and with school, healthcare professionals and opposition politicians urging the government to steel schools for the wave to come – Minister Blanquer appeared to dig in. The fresh protocol he announced hours before children headed back to school on January 3 removed the last automatic circuit-breaker for closing a class after three confirmed infections; only an undefined “very large number” of cases in one class would spur authorities to consider a shut down going forward, the ministry said.

“The virus is probably being allowed to circulate in schools,” epidemiologist Mahmoud Zureik told France Info radio early Tuesday, responding to the latest protocol changes. “Children obviously develop fewer serious cases,” said Zureik. But he suggested Omicron has altered the playing field. “Yesterday, there were 73 children under 10 in intensive-care and more than 300 hospitalised. It’s rising,” he said, stressing that Covid-19 remains “an avoidable illness”.

“I don’t think the education minister has ever tried to protect schools (against Covid-19), whether it be for ventilation, for CO2 detectors, for the problem of canteens, for raising awareness about vaccination, be it for at-risk children or for children of all ages, or for the testing policy,” said Zureik, who belongs to Du Côté de la Science, a collective of scientists that acts as a watchdog on Covid-19 policy.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, pictured here at the Élysée Palace in December, has been the focus of teachers' ire throughout the Covid-19 crisis.
French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, pictured here at the Élysée Palace in December, has been the focus of teachers’ ire throughout the Covid-19 crisis. © Ludovic Marin, AFP/File

Undeterred by the prospect of historic union consensus against his ministry’s pandemic response, Blanquer on Tuesday said it was “too bad to have a day that will further disturb the system”, calling the pandemic difficult in every country and dismissing Thursday’s strike as needlessly divisive.

“Since I express the hope that this will be our last wave, it would be a shame to be divided in the home stretch, which is very difficult, very complicated for all the players,” Blanquer told BFMTV. “It isn’t a strike that will resolve problems. One doesn’t go on strike against a virus.”

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